The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, District Judge.
The issue: Attorney fees.
The procedural vehicle: Cross motions for summary judgment.
This action arises out of an administrative hearing held
pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,
20 U.S.C. § 1415(b).
Brenton Brown, a child of Earl and Laurie Brown, attended
the Griggsville, Illinois public schools. However, because
Brenton suffered from a physical handicap as a result of a
stroke, the Griggsville school district recommended at its
annual meeting in May of 1991 that Brenton be retained in the
second grade for another year. The school district also
recommended that Brenton be placed in a special class for the
physically handicapped in Jacksonville, Illinois, 30 miles
from his parents' home. Brenton's parents were notified by the
school district of its decision, whereupon Brenton's parents
requested a hearing under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(2).
As a result of the request for a hearing, Brenton's transfer
to Jacksonville was stayed pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(3),
and Brenton remained in the Griggsville school district for the
1991-92 school year. On May 27, 1992, before a hearing was
held, the school district met at its annual meeting to consider
the placement of its special needs students, at which time it
was recommended that Brenton be allowed to advance to the third
grade and remain in the Griggsville school district. From a
review of the record, it appears that this recommendation was
based on the fact that Brenton's academic performance had
improved significantly during the 1991-92 school year.
Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), summary judgment shall be granted
if the record shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a
judgment as a matter of law." Black v. Henry Pratt Co.,
778 F.2d 1278, 1281 (7th Cir. 1985). The moving party has the
burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material
fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct.
2548, 2554, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material
fact exists when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the
nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party."
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct.
2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a
genuine issue of a material fact exists, the evidence is to be
taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598,
1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Once the moving party has met its
burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific
evidence, not mere allegations or denials of the pleadings,
which demonstrates that there is a genuine issue for trial.
Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102, 105 (7th Cir. 1983).
Based on a review of the record, the entire controversy
appears to revolve around a dispute concerning whether the
Plaintiffs are entitled to attorney fees as "the prevailing
party" for purposes of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). The material
facts of the case are not contested. As such, this dispute is a
legal one, which is capable of being resolved by means of
Unfortunately, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B) is inartfully
drafted, and the term "prevailing party" is missing an
essential modifier, thus presenting the question "the
prevailing party in what type of action?". Applying the plain
meaning rule, the prevailing party would be the prevailing
party in the civil action filed pursuant to
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). That section allows a party dissatisfied with
either the decision of the hearing officer, or the decision of
the administrative appeal board, to appeal the administrative
finding in a United States District Court.
The Seventh Circuit has yet to interpret the meaning of
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). However, the Court of Appeals for the
Eleventh Circuit has addressed the issue of when parents are
entitled to recover attorney fees under
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B), and that Court has not followed the plain
meaning rule in interpreting the statute. In Mitten v. Muscogee
County School District, 877 F.2d 932, 935 (11th Cir. 1989), the
Court held, based on the legislative history of the Act, that
the term "action or proceeding" refers to any administrative
proceeding. Thus, the Court found that if plaintiffs could
establish that they were the prevailing party in the
administrative challenge to the school district determination,
they would be able to recover their attorney fees and costs
expended in pursuing the school district's ...